US Food Aid Reform is Long Overdue


Image courtesy of North Country Public Radio

I’m excited to see that Obama is proposing food aid reforms- US food aid as it stands today is an incredibly inefficient system that benefits US producers at the expense of the hungry.  Today the US is one of the few countries that still ‘ties’ its financial aid- in other words, the food that we provide abroad is grown, processed, and packaged in (and then shipped from, on US-flagged ships) the states.  The government buys surplus grain from farmers, then sells it to governments and NGOs who use the proceeds for development; this whole process is called monetization, and it’s incredibly inefficient.

I should also clear up some possible confusion in terms of nomenclature:  US food aid is a general term referring to food sent abroad to alleviate hunger/aid in development.  It’s generally provided through Food for Peace, a piece of legislation established by Dwight Eisenhower (more on that in a sec).  The Office of Food for Peace is situated within the US Agency on International Development (USAID), but one of its titles is administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Whew, okay.  Got that?

So Food for Peace is a piece of legislation that was originally established in 1954 (albeit under a different name; it was JFK that gave it its present moniker); US farmers were experiencing record yields as a result of fertilizers developed in World War II and were looking for a way to offload the surplus without diluting domestic markets.  Food for Peace was developed as a way to kill two birds with one stone– alleviating hunger while “[laying] the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.”[1]  Sounds good, right?  A win-win situation.

Except that over the past sixty years, agribusiness interests have come to hold increasing control over government at others’ expense and the Food for Peace program is no exception.  Rather than using our resources to build infrastructure and shore up agricultural resources in target countries—which will cost everyone less in the long term, both in societal and direct economic costs— farm state representatives and various interests are trying to ensure that our food aid system stays expensive and inefficient.[2]

Andrew Natsios, head of USAID under George W. Bush, has been fighting for food aid reform for the past ten years, but it’s been an uphill battle: when he introduced one of his pilot programs to distribute cash in-country to humanitarian groups to an audience in Kansas City, he “was almost physically assaulted”[3]; these programs are near and dear to many American interests, who argue that they are job creators along with altruistic endeavors.  However, Natsios argues that the system as it exists today is unacceptably inefficient:  “I’ve run these operations, and I know that food aid often gets there after everyone’s dead,” he says.[4]

Parker Wilde over at US Food Policy had a great blog post about this last week detailing the state of US food aid today, and it’s pretty sad.  He cites some astonishing statistics- more than 16% of Title II (emergency and development food aid) funds are spent on shipping from the United States. For example:

  • Buying food in-country, rather than shipping it from the US, costs about 50% less for cereals and 31% less for legumes
  • The average prices of buying and delivering American food across an ocean has increased from $390 per metric ton in 2001 to $1,180 today.
  • These costs eat into precious resources designed to feed hungry people—causing more than 16 percent of funds to be spent on ocean shipping.
  • Buying food locally means that aid will be received 14 weeks faster.

Some might say that we’re already one of the biggest food aid donors in the world—what’s anyone complaining about?  But innovation has been a cornerstone in American success:  how do we do something faster, cheaper, better, in a way that benefits more people?  It’s taxpayers that are bearing the brunt of inefficient and expensive US food aid policies—not to mention the development dollars that are going to transportation and packaging costs instead of into local economies that need it.  The US food aid programs total $1.5 billion—that money could do a lot more good if it were being managed effectively.


Effecting change in and from within the system

At the NOFA Vermont conference there was one session in particular that stood out amongst an array of great workshops:  an executive who works for a major food service provider gave a talk on effecting broad food system change from within the food service system.  I’m not sure how she would feel about her talk being blogged about however, so I have chosen to keep her identity anonymous and I ask that my readership respect that also.


Having worked for this particular food service provider for a number of years, she gave detailed information on the ways in which she had helped them move towards a more sustainable business model.  She made an excellent point regarding corporate social responsibility:  it’s important for individual consumers to make mindful choices regarding their food, but it’s equally important—if not even more so—for those consumers to pressure the food service providers around them to do the same.


One consumer—or ten consumers, or one hundred consumers—can ensure that they’re buying local meat, or sustainable produce, or responsibly harvested seafood.  The importance of these individual choices cannot be underestimated!  But if that consumer (or group thereof) pressures their corporate or campus caterer—Aramark, Sodexo, Bon Appétit, Chartwells, etc etc—to switch to more sustainable food, then they create an enormous market for that local and sustainable food.  Whereas an individual may spent $100 per week on groceries, a catering service may spend $100,000 per week for a campus or corporation.  That’s an exponentially larger amount of food dollars that could be going towards growing a better food system.


Moreover, food service providers have the capital—both monetary and social—to work with large food production operations to improve their standards.  This executive gave a number of examples from her time working with chicken, pork, and dairy operations to bring her contractors up to better standards.  Large-scale food providers have the means to do this– to say “I want my pork to be grown humanely/my vegetables to be grown organically/my coffee to be fair trade, and I’m willing to work together with you to meet that goal.”  This has an enormous amount of potential to effect large-scale change.


The question comes down to consumers.  If enough consumers demand that their food service providers source better food, then food service providers will listen—money talks, and if business is on the line then companies will stand up and take notice.  Market realizable, widespread changes in the food system are profoundly difficult to obtain, but by working within established food distribution frameworks we won’t have to reinvent the wheel.  By harnessing the power of these established businesses, we can ensure steady and sustainable market growth for local and sustainable foods.

the writing on the wall?

Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture 1971-1976

I came across something really striking in my research today—I’m reading an old paper written by Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture.  This is the guy who promoted ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’ planting, opened up US markets to foreign trade (which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself—except that it opened them up to the volatility of the global market and lead to a mild depression in the 80s) and promoted a ‘get big or get out’ policy that was good for industry and bad for most farmers.  He was a controversial figure who came to represent the first of the ‘revolving door’ agriculture politicians—lawmakers and bureaucrats within the government who had extremely close ties to industry.  He would eventually leave his post in disgrace, but he left an enormous legacy in terms of business-oriented (and partisan) farm policy.

He was already an accomplished agricultural economist and the head of the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department in 1952 when he gave a speech on the politics of agricultural subsidies[1].  In it, he offers a comprehensive critique of US domestic agricultural policy and analyzes the political climate leading up to the ’52 presidential elections.  I’m surprised by how much I like the guy—he’s concise and funny, and we agree on a lot of things when it comes to farm policy (chief among them that farm subsidies are out of hand).

However, what struck me the most was his analysis of the political climate under which farm policy was forced to operate.  Butz is harsh in his condemnation of Truman’s Agriculture Secretary Charles Brannan’s partisan and anti-farmer endeavors but adds an interesting caveat:

I am not being critical of Mr. Brannan, the person, when I say that. I am convinced that, given time, a new Secretary of Agriculture, under a Republican administration, would be subject to identically the same temptations and the same pressures to use the system just at [sic] it is now being used… the temptation to use this set-up for political purposes is, I think, almost beyond the power of human resistance for anyone who operates in the political environment in which cabinet members must function.

Makes you wonder- this is the same guy who came to popularize unwise farming purposes that benefited his administration in its political goals (i.e., through food diplomacy, especially in regards to the Soviet Union) while arguably helping orchestrate the demise of the small-scale farmer.  What do you make of this?

[1] The Politics of Agricultural Subsidies

Earl L. Butz

Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science
Vol. 25, No. 1, The Election Issues of 1952 (May, 1952), pp. 54-68

Published by: The Academy of Political Science

Nature’s Perfect Food

We all think of milk as a healthy food- but why?  Turns out, the present day isn’t the only time when political issues were reflected in food issues- E. Melanie DuPuis in her book Nature’s Perfect Food traces the story of milk through American history.  She chronicles its rise to prominence as an instrument of Christian revivalist movements of the nineteenth century and the construction of a massive distribution and promotion industry around it as a result of its purported perfection.  She focuses on the societal beliefs and forces that contributed to its status as a daily necessity- of particular interest to me was the role that government played. The relationship between the milk industry and the government illuminates both the successes and the limitations of the industrial food system, and can inform a fruitful discussion around the creation of a more sustainable food system.

milk-advertisement-wpa-art-program-1940Both government and industry have had a hand in shaping perceptions of the rise of industrial agriculture, and recognizing this (as opposed to thinking of industrial agriculture as a natural consequence of modernity) leads to a deeper understanding of the society and food system that we live in.  The perfection narrative- i.e., the idea that society is forever improving and moving towards perfection- of the government and industry groups (and the polarizing decline narrative of some consumerist and anti-corporate groups) perpetuates the idea of the industrial food system as inevitable:  in order to maintain the quality of life that we enjoy today, industrial agriculture as it exists today is an indispensible necessity.  DuPuis’ comparison to the Cold War is apt here:  much like pro- and anti-industry groups, both the Soviet Union and the United States were convinced that they had created the ‘perfect’ system, and there was no room for argument (214).  In the words of George Bush, repeated throughout his presidency, “you’re either with us… or you’re with the enemy.  There is no in between.”

This Manichaeist sentiment is inherently polarizing and doesn’t allow for productive discourse.  Not only does it create a considerable degree of animosity among groups working towards the same goal (a healthy, profitable, sustainable food system) but it denies crucial nuance.  By recognizing this divisive element of the political discourse surrounding the food system, one can clean a more comprehensive understanding of how to reform it.  In order to effect meaningful change, all perspectives must be considered, from recognizing the gains that the industrial food system has provided to acknowledging the valid claims of those who speak out against it.

For better or for worse, change must come from inside the system if it is to be meaningful, because to live as a member of society is to life inside the industrial food system.  Downfall narratives paint modern society, the government, and technology as the problem with the food system, but an anarcho-Luddite approach won’t benefit many people, if anyone.  Society, government, and technology are tools that can be used for good or bad; denying them that power would be to deny a good-food movement the avenue to succeed.  In order to become successful and effect lasting change, a movement must consider a holistic approach to both the cause and the solution—no single factor created the evils of the industrial food system, and no single reform will fix it.

Milk is not a perfect food, because nothing is a perfect food; despite Americans’ obsession with ‘superfoods,’ the only way to get a healthy diet is to consume a variety of healthy foods.  DuPuis’ thorough and repeated rejection of the perfection narrative provides a valuable common-sense counterpoint to the claims of both pro- and anti-milk crusaders:  there is no perfect food, and to subsidize industries as though there were is foolhardy and expensive. Government partnerships with ‘virtuous’ big business informed by deeply-held but not necessarily scientifically valid socially constructed beliefs do infinitely more harm than good.

The allowances that government has made to large corporations in the past twenty years has galvanized people—controversies surrounding rBGH milk struck a chord with consumers across America and introduced many people to the faults of the existing power politics surrounding food.  Writing blank checks to industries considered by some to be socially beneficial has proven questionable to public health, and people have reacted— it would be similar to the government subsidizing Twinkies because Twinkies were seen by some as wholesome and healthy.

The rise of organic milk without the support of the massive government and business infrastructure built around conventional milk over the last century attests to the fact that consumers (a word that interchangeable with ‘citizens’ in an interesting comment on modern America) retain a considerable degree of power.  Consumer awareness is increasing, and dismissal of ‘tofu politics’ (222) is unwise; this  idea that ‘the personal is political’ united people from all walks of life to mobilize their personal concerns for societal good in feminism’s second wave.

Organic milk is not the only proof of this; the explosive growth of organic agriculture, farmer’s markets, and even moves towards more humanitarian meat sourcing by major food providers and fast food restaurants.[1]  Powerful and deep-pocketed forces are arrayed against consumer awareness groups—the defeat of California Proposition 37 comes to mind here—but doesn’t that make the sentiment all the stronger, that despite this it has pervaded the national consciousness to the extent that it has?

The increasing awareness around food issues over the last few years, both by government and by private industry, suggests that consumers do have political authority—voting with one’s dollars is a powerful form of voting indeed.  But is there a way to harness this individual action into a broader form of activism?  Can there be a national movement, along the line of the populist agrarian movements of the nineteenth century, advocating a healthier food system?

DuPuis makes a valid point when she says that you can’t change the entire system by changing one element; you have to situate the problem in its sociopolitical and economic context (209).  Why is milk (or cheap ground beef, or a Happy Meal) so important?  To what end was the industrial food system created?  How can we achieve those same goals in a more sustainable manner?

She also cites veganism and vegetarianism as two movements that start as personal choices but create ‘communities of practice’ (217) that make their practitioners feel part of a larger whole, and thus more apt to advocate for their shared beliefs.  By considering the perils of perfection narratives, recognizing the power of consumers to effect change, and making a concerted effort towards the creation of communities of practice, I would argue that DuPuis lays a firm foundation for the construction of a stronger sustainable food movement.  By examining the relationships between government and industry, social movements and consumer behavior through milk, she analyzes the successes and failures of previous movements and provides a solid jumping off point for food advocates.

So what can we take away form this?  How can the milk narrative inform a discussion on healthy and sustainable food moving forward?  How can the relationship between government and milk illuminate the successes and limitations of the industrial food system?  And finally, what do you think would be the most effective way to effect change in the food system?

[1] Greenaway, Twilight. “Food Mega-wholesaler Sysco Pledges to Liberate Pigs from Crates.” Grist. Grist Magazine, 25 July 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <;.

community gardens pt. 3: political empowerment


NYCCGC press conference, 2010

NYCCGC press conference, 2010

In terms of empowerment, gardens gave a voice to people that otherwise felt left out of the political process and gave residents the power to improve their neighborhoods.  In the 1970s, a number of vacant lots appeared in New York City as the city went bankrupt and investors (and white people) left for greener pastures.  The streets of many neighborhoods became seedy and unsafe, and the residents felt that they couldn’t depend upon the corrupt police force.  The establishment of gardens—again at first by counterculture groups like the Green Gorillas, but gradually percolating into the rest of the population—provided a rally point for many communities to improve their areas.  Spaces that would otherwise fall prey to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ became spaces for community engagement, discourse, and productivity.

The gardens replaced needle-strewn empty lots with productive spaces where people, especially women, felt safe spending time (Schmelzkopf, 273).  Residents of Losaida, an area now more commonly called Alphabet City, speak of replacing desolate parking lots with “places full of color, camaraderie, and safety” (ibid., 273).  The streets became safer and the neighborhoods more attractive to investors as gardens popped up on every corner.  Perversely, this became a problem in the 1990s as the land in the very neighborhoods that the gardens had helped to revitalize became too attractive to investors to stay as gardens.  However, this introduced many previously apolitical gardeners to grassroots activism.

Gardeners in New York found their political voice, participating collectively in the political process when Mayor Giuliani tried to auction off garden plots in the 1990s.  The nonprofits and gardeners that had lobbied for and worked the lands brilliantly managed their campaign in a fight with City Hall that saw a number (although not all) of the gardens preserved (Smith and Kurtz, 208).  A number of the gardeners were people of color who otherwise tended to feel marginalized by the state and local government, but through their work in the gardens were able to make a difference in the politics of the city while preserving the mainstays of their communities.

Community gardens pt. 2: integrating newcomers

Community gardens that have been established in low-income and at-risk populations have provided a source of not only food but of community building, political empowerment, and business acumen.  Community gardens for immigrant populations have been successfully established in Toronto, which has the highest proportion of immigrants of any city in the world (Baker, 307).  Gardens have provided for them social and recreational spaces, cheap good food, community education, and an opportunity for supplemental income.

It’s clear that community gardens have been enormous advantages for low-income communities, and establishing them across economic classes and social groups (for example, establishing school gardens) will only reap more benefits for everyone involved.  School gardens have been shown to have a positive effect not only on children’s quality of food in schools, but on nutrition education, compassion for living things, academic achievement, and psychosocial adjustment as compared to control schools where no gardens were planted or maintained (Murphy, 6).

By increasing the number of community gardens, a community regardless of its tax bracket can become more economically self-sufficient and reduce its dependence on large grocery chains (and, by extension, fossil fuels).  Nationwide food scares will have less of an impact on communities that don’t need to rely on an international food chain for their dinner; monthly produce scares will be a thing of the past.  Moreover, taking advantage of the knowledge base of marginalized populations who know how to farm sustainably (not only the immigrant populations cited in Toronto, but the rapidly dying out population of farmers born in North America) will create jobs that maximize peoples’ individual skills and potentials for the benefit of their communities.

Moreover, the jobs will be better paying than comparable conventional jobs in agriculture:  in terms of building a more localized food infrastructure, local farmers create more jobs than traditional markets—1.3 jobs/farmer versus 0.9 jobs/farmer—and their crops generate higher sales per acre–$590/acre for local food versus $304 for an industrial farm (Hamerschlag, Local Food and the Farm Bill).  Local food markets provide a critical outlet for new small businesses—beginning farmers account for 48% of local West Coast food producers.

Community gardens accomplish a range of goals:  in terms of community building, they facilitate integration of low-income and new immigrant communities into the broader community in addition to strengthening the broader community itself.  Gardens have the potential to be a supplementary source of income for those low-income populations:  Nowtopia cites an example of low-income gardeners who produced $22.8 million worth of produce on a $3.5 million budget  (Carlsson, 93).  This is a cost effective method of community improvement and development that harnesses natural processes for human benefit at little cost to sponsoring organizations and governments.

For many new immigrants, community garden plots enabled women to have an independent source of income that wasn’t dependent upon them leaving their children at home.  Women who had traditionally tended gardens in their home countries were given the opportunity to supplement their household income in a way that was culturally acceptable to them and their families in addition to connecting them with the broader North American community.

They didn’t need to find babysitters for younger children, as they would with a traditional job, but could rather pass on knowledge to their children and maximize household resources—younger children could weed or play in the safety of the gardens, while older children could be productive helpers.  The gardens help them acclimate to North America, easing culture shock as they are able to grow familiar produce that would be otherwise difficult to find.

Senior citizen gardens in Toronto provided elderly immigrants with a sense of ‘food citizenship’—a sense of belonging in Canada through their connection with the land.  Older immigrants who struggled not only with the language but with adapting to a new country so late in life found a community of like-minded individuals.  Moreover, they were able to use skills that they had developed in their home countries to better their lives in Canada by either enjoying familiar meals with hard-to-find produce or selling their goods for a profit.

Community gardens are beneficial for everyone- but their positive impact on immigrant communities is especially valuable.

Community Gardening: a concrete step towards a better food system


Beautiful community garden in Idaho!

America as it exists now devotes massive swaths of the South and Midwest for production of both food and commodity crops, but localized community gardens would provide for a more stable, economically viable food system.  Rather than massive egg-producing factories (not hen-houses!) in North Carolina or corn farms in Iowa feeding the entire nation, a localized and regional method of food production would make more sense from an economic as well as a community standpoint.   By focusing on construction of community gardens, society can make great strides towards being more successful and sustainable.  By using a selection of readings as a springboard for exploration into the benefits of community gardening, the benefits that gardens bring to their neighborhoods become clear.

Much like the triad of nonprofits, gardeners, and governments that work together in tandem to reap the best benefits from community gardens, these readings play off of each other’s strengths and address each other’s weaknesses.  Nowtopia provides an outline of how community gardens are working in America today as a jumping off point, while The Transition Companion lays out how to create and propagate them to help create the sustainable metropolises seen in Register’s Ecocities.

Nowtopia demonstrates the success that community gardens have had in the United States throughout the 20th century and how they exist today.  In World War I, the establishment of intensive ‘victory gardens’ produced $520 million worth of food within two seasons, while in World War II, those same victory gardens provided 40% of America’s vegetable supply (Nowtopia, 83).   However, they began to decline in the post-war years, and in the 1970s funding for them was cut drastically.  Simultaneously, however, hippies and other counterculture activists were planting community gardens on vacant lots and popularizing a ‘back to the land’ movement’; the community gardens we see today are the heirs of victory gardens but the product of the hard work of counter-culture gardeners.

Today, community gardens are part of a movement that seeks to fight against corporatization of the food system.  Despite a lack of government funding, they have proved themselves to be exceptionally productive and sustainable endeavors.  However, by broadening the scope of the movement—making it about more than just counter-culture (although obviously its counter-culture roots remain an integral part of the movement), community gardens can become an everyday part of life for a broad scope of society.  The Detroit Agriculture Network puts it well when they emphasize that their community gardens aren’t just about food:  “The idea is to grow community, to grow people, and to grow food at the same time” (Nowtopia, 91).

By establishing even half as many community gardens as there once were victory gardens, the government can maximize food subsidy dollars both in terms of nutrition and in terms of production.  The American food system is fundamentally skewed by our current subsidy system:  unhealthy choices are the cheaper ones, as massive amounts of taxpayer dollars are funneled into the pockets of agribusiness and food processing corporations (Hamerschlag, “Subsidy Buffet”).

Federal and state governments could support peoples’ health and local economies by making community supported agriculture (CSA) shares an option for EBT and WIC participants.  Community supported agriculture shares involve an individual paying a farm a certain amount of money for a weekly ‘share,’ or box of vegetables grown on the farm or in the garden.  In this way, the farmer is guaranteed income at the beginning of the season when it’s most needed, and the consumer is guaranteed a large quantity of inexpensive produce.  This system would work excellently in community gardens, enabling gardeners to purchase needed resources and guaranteeing them a steady market while ensuring a flow of inexpensive, healthy food towards low income groups.

By creating locally-based food systems reliant on human labor and urban cultivation, there will be less reliance on unhealthy food in ‘food deserts’ such as inner cities and rural areas.  Residents will be enabled to either grow food in the gardens for cheap or benefit from low-cost community supported agriculture programs.

The Transition Companion, a guide to creating more sustainable communities from a grassroots perspective, provides a concrete guide for how to go about establishing these gardens on a larger scale, complete with examples of previous communities who have established them.  It proposes an alternate model of consumption based on a district-region-nation model, wherein goods and services are divided up by whether they should be produced on a local level (like crops and waste recycling) or on a larger scale (like electricity, building materials, and machinery) (The Transition Companion, 50).  It lays out concrete steps towards achieving Register’s “ecocity” model and discusses the successes and failures of previous projects, making future projects more feasible.  Building upon the foundations laid by modern urban community garden efforts seen in Nowtopia, it aims to give readers the tools to turn community gardening and other sustainable building efforts into a concrete movement with tangible goals for broad swaths of society.

Finally, Ecocities is the end goal—sustainable cities where human potential is maximized while deleterious effects on the environment are minimized.  Register argues that cities need to be rebuilt along ecological purposes.  Community gardens are the perfect first step towards ecologically focused cities:  they promote land stewardship, productive use of compact space, and a sustainable food system.  He argues that buildings need to be conceived not only as standalone structures, but as part of greater communities (Register, 33), which community gardens will help to foster.  By bringing residents of a particular area together, gardens create the dialogue necessary to communicate needs with developers and local government in order to ensure communally-focused building projects.

Register advocates redesigning cities and suburbs to maximize population density, and establishing neighborhood gardens are a solid step towards ensuring that people have a stake in their community and are willing to change it for the better.   Residents of a particular neighborhood or town aren’t going to be willing to make drastic changes overnight (or at all) if they don’t feel connected to a community that will benefit; it’s human nature to want to take care of one’s own.  Community gardens help ensure that ‘one’s own’ includes one’s neighbors—and thus they are an integral part not only of growing food, but of growing community.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Local Food and The Farm Bill: Small Investments, Big Returns.” EWG .Agriculture. Environmental Working Group, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Murphy, J. Michael. “The Edible Schoolyard: Improving Behaviour and Academic Results.” .Scribd. Botanical Garden UC, Center for Ecoliteracy, Apr. 2003. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Civil Eats.” Civil Eats. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Smith, Christopher M., and Hilda E. Kurtz. “Community Gardens And Politics Of Scale In New York City.” Geographical Review 93.2 (2003): 193-212.

Schmelzkopf, Karen. “Urban community gardens as contested space.” Geographical Review (1995): 364-381.

Baker, Lauren E. “Tending Cultural Landscapes And Food Citizenship In Toronto’s Community Gardens.” Geographical Review 94.3 (2004): 305-325.

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Companion. N.p.: Chelsea Green, 2011. Print.

Carlsson, Chris. Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today. Oakland, CA: AK, 2008. Print.

Register, Richard. Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola, BC: New Society, 2006. Print.

policy wonking ahead

So what am I writing this thesis about, anyway?  Well, now that I’ve pulled my first sleepless night writing an outline, I can definitively inform you (not in small part because I myself was forced to figure it out)!

In short I’m looking at how agribusiness lobbies influence farm policy.  They have a huge amount of say in what and how we eat in America, and you can bet that they’re taking advantage of that.  The government is pouring taxpayer money into special interests and legislating policies that are detrimental to our health, our economy, and our environment- and Americans by and large are standing by and letting it happen.  Why is that?  How can we change that?  And so, without further ado, I’ll be posting some chapter outlines here, one at a time.  Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1:  Introduction

The great majority of American agriculture policy is legislated as part of the Farm Bill, an omnibus piece of legislation that comes out roughly every 5 years.  Various interests (i.e., agribusiness, food processors, relatively small constituent interests) have influenced the Farm Bill to the detriment of the food system; because of questionably sound agricultural policies the health (both corporal and economical) of the country has suffered.  This thesis will examine the extent to which these interests have had an effect on agricultural policies by examining three significant farm bills:  the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, and the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.

The Farm Bill sets commodity prices, and allocates money for domestic food aid (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), conservation, rural development, nutrition education, and research.  Economically speaking, it’s a massive bill—not only does it allocate massive sums of money (the 2008 bill cost $604 billion over ten years[1]), but massive sums are spent on lobbying for it–$173.5 million for the same bill, more than was spent lobbying on Obama’s health care bill[2] —and yet it’s a largely ignored bill, except among farming communities and lobby groups.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are going to subsidize cheap commodity crops whose processing and sale generates revenue for the same deep-pocketed lobbyists who are funding the bill in the first place; it’s a cycle that’s damaging our health, our environment, and our economy.  Action needs to be taken, but that won’t happen unless the history and policy of the Farm Bill is better understood by the general American public.  This thesis will examine in depth the power politics surrounding farm bills, charting the increasing sway of industry over government through an examination of the nascent years of modern farm policy in the great depression; the increasing market- and export-focus of the 1973 farm bill (and its aftermath); the increasing disillusionment with subsidies that were nonetheless passed successfully in the 2002 farm bill; attempts at encouraging a more localized food system in 2008; and questioning the role of farm subsidies and agricultural lobbies in 2012.

[1] U.S. Congressional Research Service.  Actual Farm Bill Spending and Cost Estimates (R41195; December 13, 2010), by Jim Monke and Renée Johnson.  Accessed September 18, 2012.

[2] “Farm bill tops health care law in lobbying dollars,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 17,  2012.  Accessed 10 October 2012.

Golden Arches East

So I don’t know if any of you out there in blogland have ever read Golden Arches East, but it’s an interesting anthropology/sociology book written about the effects/perceptions of McDonald’s in ‘East Asia’ (Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo).  I had to write a paper on it for my Globalization of Food class, and I thought that it might make for a good blog post!


I thought I’d take a look at how McDonalds’ presence illuminates tensions concerning women’s roles in Westernizing societies, because a) it’s an interesting lens through which to view the Westernization of society and b) feminism is awesome and examining womens’ roles is something often overlooked in discussions of Westernization and cultural imperialism (and that is a very Vassar sentence).  So, without further ado-


Aunt McDonald— McDonald’s and Gender in East Asia

McDonald’s is part of a worldwide movement towards globalization in which countries are torn between traditional values and ‘modern’ Western capitalist ideals; women in particular are often caught in the cultural crossfire.  By examining the role that McDonald’s comes to play in the lives of the women of Taipei, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo in Golden Arches East, the tensions within each society between traditional values and Westernization are illuminated.


Although the concept of modernity and the valuation of Western culture is not something that was introduced by McDonald’s, an examination of the effects of McDonald’s on gender relations in East Asia illuminates many of the tensions between tradition and modernization in East Asia.
For example, the transition between from a Confucian-style multigenerational family where care-taking was focused on the elderly to a model family unit much more similar to the Western-style nuclear family has been in the making for many decades.  McDonald’s is merely a useful anthropological lens through which to examine the phenomenon.


Seeing how McDonald’s (and the families who frequent the restaurant) interacts with China’s “Little Emperors and Empresses” (second-generation only children, who can have as many as six adults doting on them) is a revealing exercise.  Chinese women assert that they feel more comfortable in a place where they know their children are being taken care of and, and value McDonald’s as a place to exposed their children to Western culture that will in order to improve their job prospects later on.  Children are expected to compete for jobs and university spots with their peers around the world, and so exposing them early to Western culture has become a priority for their parents.   McDonald’s fills this need in a safe, consumerist fashion, so that the ideas that the children (and, as a side effect, their parents) are consuming are much less important than the actual food—this is transnationalism in action.
The shift in East Asian societies can be seen not only in changing family demographics, but also in the increasing amount of disposable income in the pockets of younger consumers.  McDonald’s is the ideal place to spend it, as food is cheap and paid for on an individual basis.  Although this makes men feel uncomfortable because they “feel awkward and stingy just paying for their own food,” (146) it also means that purchasing power is can be put in the hands of the female consumer.


This is not to say that the individual-payment model is without a doubt considered superior; traditional communal meals are still very much a valued part of the society.  However, for women to have the opportunity to pay for their own meals is certainly a step towards Western cultural values, and one that women seemed seem to welcome as it allowed allows them to inhabit a room of their own, so to speak.
Although all of the cities valued Westernization as a desirable trait in varying degrees, women’s basic needs (such as safety and public restrooms) were still seem being overlooked in many of the cities surveyed.  However, in all of the cities cited, McDonald’s is perceived as a refuge for by women; whether it’s the lack of alcohol, the child-friendly environment, or the clean public restrooms, women consistently cite feeling more comfortable in McDonald’s than in comparable native establishments.


Hong Kong is attempting to establish itself as a stable, genteel society looking forward instead of back, but public amenities for women still lack far behind that of men.  McDonald’s is described as “an oasis, a familiar rest station, in what is perceived to be an inhospitable urban environment” (90).  If half of the population views their own cities city as inhospitable urban environments, that calls into question the role that women play in this ‘new,’ stable Hong Kong.


In both Seoul and Beijing, McDonald’s is cited as creating a secure space for women to spend time unaccompanied.  This is attributed to its unique environment:   “an alcohol-free and child-friendly environment is perceived as an appropriate and safe place for women unaccompanied by male family members or friends” (146).


In this culturally novel situation women can relax, escape home situations that they find unsatisfactory (for example, the Taiwanese daughter in law who spends time at McDonald’s with her children instead of putting up spending time with her husband’s mother), and connect with each other.


The fact that there is now a public space in which women can feel secure is heartening, but one must wonder why the space was only created by the introduction of a multinational megacorporation.  East Asian societies (and the women who are a part of them) are caught between Westernization and traditional values; McDonald’s highlights the difference between the two.


Culinary traditions in Taiwan were almost completely polarized between mainland cuisine and ethnic Taiwanese cuisine before the arrival of McDonald’s, which brought a relatively non-political outside culinary option.  Despite the warm welcome that McDonald’s received in Taiwan, there was still some pushback as hamburgers entered Taipei’s primary schools in 1989; news articles blamed “lazy mothers” who didn’t want to pack their children’s lunches.  Women are still seen as primary caretakers of children, and the society outside of McDonald’s is still one very much coached in traditional values.


In Seoul, the relationship between traditional and modern values is coached in dichotomous terms, and eating is very much a political act. Consumption of McDonald’s is seen as a betrayal of Korean farmers and a sign of social climbing aspirations.  Korea is especially protective of its culinary culture; in contrast to Beijing, McDonald’s was not largely welcomed by the general populace.


However, Korean women employed by McDonald’s feel as though the company’s “openness and relative lack of hierarchy” (142) leads to greater gender equality than they would find in Korean business situations, and were very satisfied with that.  Again McDonald’s introduces a public space that is more welcoming to women, highlighting the difference in women’s roles in traditional versus modern societies.
Despite the warm welcome that McDonald’s received in Taiwan, there was still some pushback as hamburgers entered Taipei’s primary schools in 1989; news articles blamed “lazy mothers” who didn’t want to pack their children’s lunches.  Women are still seen as primary caretakers of children, and the broader societies in which McDonald’s is situated are still very much coached in traditional values.


One has to wonder whether McDonald’s has sufficient clout to influence gender relations beyond the doors of its stores.  McDonald’s is perceived to have had a significant effect on other aspects of public life; for example queuing, while not introduced to Hong Kong by McDonald’s, is widely believed to have caught on with the introduction of McDonald’s restaurants.  Likewise in Beijing, the cleanliness of the restrooms set a higher standard that competing restaurants were forced to match; the higher hygienic standards of the Western competitor increased the standards of cleanliness across the board.


Is transnationalism strong enough of a concept that people will consume values that are unfamiliar or incompatible with their traditional cultures alongside their Western aspirations?  If people only adopt the ideas that already fit into their cultural framework, then the forecast for McDonalds’ future in gender equality looks gloomy—the equality that McDonald’s brings is not a genuine, grassroots sentiment originating in the women of these societies, but rather an imposition brought part and parcel with McDonald’s other novel Western qualities. McDonald’s is not a feminist organization by any stretch of the imagination; that it brings some semblance of Western standards of gender relations to East Asian societies is nothing more than a side effect of international capitalism.
For the women discussed in Golden Arches East, McDonald’s represents a number of things.  Among other things it’s a haven from an overbearing mother in law; a way to ensure the future success of children by immersing them in Western norms and ideas; a clean and alcohol-free environment where women can feel safe relaxing and connecting with other customers (and women).  East Asian societies are deeply affected by globalization and are struggling to reconcile the changes it brings with their own deeply rooted tensions and traditions.  By examining the role that McDonald’s plays in the role of women of East Asia, these issues are brought into sharper focus—but by no means is McDonald’s a solution to gender inequality in East Asia (or anywhere) or tensions created by the clash of traditional and Western ideals.


Congratulations if you’ve made it this far!  If you’re still interested (and I certainly don’t blame you if you want to go back to watching Dom Mazzetti on Youtube) here are some questions to consider-

1.    Koreans were less enthusiastic in welcoming McDonald’s to Seoul because they were concerned about people continuing to consume local and traditional cuisine.  Women working at the McDonald’s in Korea enjoy a higher level of gender equality than their peers in other restaurants, but how do you think that different treatment of women is perceived when it comes from an institution that’s perceived as an affront to national cultural values?
2.    China is experiencing social upheaval as a result of the tensions between global capitalism and national communism; where is women’s role in this new society?  Where do you see McDonald’s fitting in?
3.    In your view, does McDonald’s offer a true ‘oasis’ for women if the women are still viewed as customers?  What are your thoughts on McDonald’s as safe space?